Down Mall Road

On our first morning in Darjeeling wed decided to walk through the town. The previous evening I’d looked at all the pins on the map that I’d put and realized that many of them lay along the Mall Road. So the early part of our walk would be along that storied road. The later part would take us down the steep ridge on which the town lies, to the railway station and back up again.

We started with a short but steep climb from our hotel’s gates to the Mall Road. From there it was a pleasant walk up to the Government House. The building originally belonged to the erstwhile Maharajah of Cooch Bihar. The Government of India had bought it in 1877 CE to serve as the summer residence of the imperial Viceroy of India. It then devolved to the state of West Bengal, and remains a second residence of the governor of the state. Just beyond it is a terrace with benches which provide a lovely view of the Kanchenjunga hills. We sat there for a while, looking at the world’s third highest mountain floating white above a railing trailed with fairy lights. I thought to myself that it might be nice to come back for sunset, but I never did.

We turned past the little grotto with a statue of the famous mountaineer, Nawang Gombu Sherpa, and walked towards Chowrasta. The road was lined with tall trees. I recognized only the deodars, the storied Himalayan cedar. The tall straight trunks of this tree were in demand as far away as Beijing, where they were used as pillars in palaces and imperial tombs. But there were many I could not recognize. I think I saw a fugitive Pinus pinea, the Roman umbrella pine, hiding somewhere. In its imperial heydays, the British would have planted exotics in these hills. I found evidence of these crimes against nature elsewhere in the hills. Under the trees, there were shelters with seats. Perhaps they were bus stops, although I saw precious few buses in this town.

Further on, the highest point in this part of town was dominated by St. Andrew’s church. This was founded in 1843 CE by the Scottish engineers and army men who came here. The present gothic style structure dates from 1879. We walked into the grounds. The church was closed, and we were told that it opens only for Sunday services. No chance of seeing the memorial plaques that are said to line the walls, then. I took a photo of the door and waited for The Family as she took photos of the marigolds planted in rows of beds outside.

In front of the church was the most terribly impressive building that I was to see in the town. The ornate gates were shut tight and barred entry to anyone without appointment. This was the seat of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, which governs Kalimpong and Darjeeling districts. The rooftop finial didn’t make it into my photo of the gate, but fortunately I had a photo of the gurkha rampant with his kukri and bayonet atop the globe taken from further up the road.

As the Mall Road passes from the chowk between the admin building and the church, it turns into a pedestrian zone. The traffic passes through the lower road, which is the upper end of the oldest road in town, the Hill Cart Road. These two are called Nehru and Gandhi roads today, but known locally by the old names. The public library was closed. It was founded in 1958 and housed in this building which was earlier a hotel called Carlton House, and has been run by the district administration since 1975.

Every town worth its salt now sports a I ♥ <insert name of town> installation somewhere. We passed one with a distinct lack of selfie takers before coming to Chowrasta, the touristy heart of the town. Two of the institutions here have a long history. One is the Oxford Bookstore, with its interesting collection of books on the Himalayan region. I lost myself for a while there, browsing books which I hadn’t known that I need to read immediately. Fortunately they ship books to your home. I can’t figure out how long it has been in this location. its neighbours, the two curio shops, Habeeb Mullick & Sons, each belonging to one of the sons, presumably, was apparently the first business in Darjeeling to be owned by an Indian, when it opened in 1890.

We passed quickly by the shops and restaurants which we would come back to later, and came to the clock tower. This stands atop the municipal building. We found that the foundation stone of the municipal building was laid in 1917, and half the cost of the building and its 100 feet (30.5 meters) tall tower was borne by the erstwhile Maharaja of Cooch Behar. It was inaugurated in 1921. Across the Laden La road from the tower stood a whimsical building with a steeply sloping roof, pointy towers and gable windows. Built in 1920, this now serves as a hotel.

We stopped at the Himalayan Tibet Museum run by the Manjushree Foundation. Our next stop was the heritage building which houses the Head Post Office. We had to climb down a steep staircase in order to get to it. The building was inaugurated in 1921, and is on the UNESCO world heritage list, but it is a typical charmless post office from inside, run by a part of the central bureaucracy which runs on a shoestring budget. The outside was covered with bright signboards. The only charming thing about it were the chimneys. From here to the railway station took us through a narrow and steeply sloping path down a dilapidated house which turned out to be an interesting stop, our last before we came to the railway station.

We’d noticed that there are more wires per cubic meter of “open” space in Darjeeling than in most towns we’ve been to. Thick optic fiber lines entered this building which looked dilapidated even before its was finished. It belonged to an organization called the British Gurkha Ex-Servicemen’s Association, a reminder that the racial stereotyping characteristic of the Empire continues in its rump even today. We stopped at the corner and I took photographs of these shoes all washed and drying. I noticed that The Family was busy taking photos next to me. Later I saw that she’d found a view of Kanchenjunga from this spot. Neither of us saw what the other did! One day I’ll ask her to write about this walk. It might be an eye opener for me.

New Tehri

We climbed a little more than a 1000 meters from the Tehri Dam to the tpwn of New Tehri. The old town, now drowned in the waters of the dam, is supposed to have been founded by Sudarshan Shah, one of the rulers of the erstwhile Tehri kingdom. The new town was built by the Tehri Hydro Development Corportation when the dam was under construction in the late 1990s. The old town had a population of more than 250,000 people at the beginning of the 20th century. Ten years ago the population of New Tehri was not even a tenth of that.

The town looked pleasant enough as we drove up to it. The winter sun is pretty strong at this altitude of 1.7 Kilometers above sea level. In the sunlight the houses ranged along the slope above the road looked bright and cheerful, with apple trees in full bloom in little patches of garden.

Later when we stood on the road above the town and looked down on it, I realized that the houses look like they were stamped out of a mould. They were, actually, with the THDC forced to build houses in a hurry in order to rehabilitate some of the people who were displaced by the rising waters behind the dam. The town looked better planned and more orderly than the typical hill town here. However the central bazaar, through which we’d passed on our way up, was just as crowded and chaotic.

There was a nice viewpoint here. We looked down at the clock tower of New Tehri. Nitin told us that it was a replica of the famous clock tower of Tehri. The old tower was built by Kirti Shah, the fourth king of Tehri, in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Contemporary reports of the submergence of the old clock tower sound emotional. There was a ghost of the same emotion in Nitin’s voice. He is perhaps too young to remember the drowning of the tower in 2006 very clearly though.

On the lower edge of the town we’d passed a bright white coloured temple. I asked Nitin about it, but he wasn’t very sure which temple it was. “Local,” was his laconic reply. It was an interesting layout, with four outer structures with peaked roofs marking out a rectangle, and the central temple being the tallest part of the structure. I couldn’t remember temples built in this shape. I wonder whether this was also a copy of a structure from drowned Old Tehri.

It was just past lunch, and only walking about and taking photos was keeping me awake. I peered into a little roadside kiosk and found the owner was taking a little siesta. It was a tight fit, but he didn’t look uncomfortable. The sun kept the place reasonably warm. As we drove out of New Tehri and took the road back to our hotel, I succumbed to the winter’s warmth and dozed off for a while.

Landour Clock Tower

The area around the clock tower of Landour is a network of narrow roads which twist and turn on the steep hillside. On the side of the road leading to the clock tower was a little gazebo, one of the many we’d seen around Mussourie. We walked in to take a look at the breathtaking view of the hills. You could look out and forget the crowded road behind you. The ornate ironwork looks like it was installed about a hundred years ago, perhaps a little more. The British Empire would have been at its height then, unconscious of the fact that within a few short decades it would have vanished.

The clock tower, just outside, marked the century old separation between the civil area and the army cantonment. The tower had been built in the late 1930s by a local resident called Ugrasain Verma. Photos from that time show a white masonry tower with a square cross section and a flat roof. The clock stopped working before Mr. Verma’s death in 1992. Soon after that the tower was deemed to be a hazard and demolished. The tower that you see in the photo was constructed less than two years ago.

We walked past it to the bazaar. It looked very pleasant. Small kiosks on one side of the road had opened their doors for the day. Customers and shopkeepers knew each other well. The trio whom you see in this photo were chatting away as the shoemaker repaired one’s shoe. It was sunny but cold; there would be a hailstorm later in the day. We walked along the narrow road, taking care to stay out of the way of passing motorbikes and cars.

The traffic is fairly considerate here, but scrapes and bumps are almost inevitable. As you can see from the state of the parked car in this photo, most cars have a few dents. Public art is very common on the tall walls which are natural to these slopes. Was this picture of a harvest festival, or was it part of wedding? I should have asked, but other things occupied me, and now I have only my guesses.

On the other side of the road, just beyond the line of kiosks were carts of fresh vegetables. Everything looked fresh but there was nothing that I could not recognize. There were no local fruits or leaves which you could not find anywhere else. Garhwal is strongly plugged into the markets, unlike the easter Himalayas where you still find interestingly new local food. Nitin had found safe parking ahead, and we got into the car to go on to our next stop.

The Luck of the Clock

The Sadar Market of Jodhpur sprawls symmetrically around the clock tower in the center. Most of the market is about a storey high, so you have no problem telling the time, no matter which shop you are in. One of the Maharajas of Jodhpur, Sardar Singh, had caused the market and the tower to be built. I’m usually too lazy to climb a tower. There are several clock towers in the part of Mumbai where I live, and the thought of climbing one never enters my mind. But this was only four storeys high. Not a problem at all.

I could find very little about the tower. I asked the person who was selling tickets for it. He told me to talk to the man who maintains the clock. I never found how high it was, although I guess it is less than 30 meters tall. A local newspaper, Patrika, claims that the tower was completed in 1910, and the clock installed in 1911. The clock was built by Lund and Blockley, the same clockmaker who had supplied the clocks to the University and the erstwhile Victoria Terminus in Mumbai.

Mohammad Iqbal, the man who runs the clock, did not know much about its history. He said his father had been the first person to maintain the clock, and that he had been appointed to the job in 1968. The newspaper article claims that the the father, Allah Noor, took five years to repair the clock after it broke down in 1991, and was subsequently appointed to look after it. Whether 1968 or 1991, I found it hard to believe that a clock which requires daily manual setting would have run for decades without someone to look after it.

I find it easier to believe that there was a succession of keepers who would do routine work on it, such as winding it, or keeping it oiled. Allah Noor may have come to this job in 1968, as his son claims. It is possible that when the clock broke down in 1991, as the newspaper story would have it, and no one could be found to repair it, Allah Noor took on the challenge. The newspaper story and Md. Iqbal’s version agree that after the father’s death in September 2009, Iqbal inherited the position of time keeper. Lucky as his name, it would seem.

Iqbal was happy to be photographed. He pointed out the three weights which power the escapement mechanism. The tall room behind the clock faces is a little cramped because of the massive wheels, escapements, and gears which run the dials on the four clock faces. The thick stone walls would not have come cheap; I could believe the newspaper’s claim that in 1910 the tower and the clock took Rs. 3,00,000 to complete. It is hard to calculate inflation rates before the founding of the Reserve Bank in 1934, especially since different princely states had their own rupees. If we assume that between 1910 and 1934 the value of the rupee remained unchanged in Jodhpur, then the clock and the tower would have cost about 7 crores and 30 lakhs of 2017’s rupees (that is INR 73 million).

I wasn’t ready to climb up a ladder to the cupola, so Mohammad Iqbal’s place of work was the highest point I got to. The light inside the clock room was challenging, but I managed to take the photos that you see here. Iqbal said that he is helped by his son, Mohammad Shakeel, who, he hopes, will succeed him as the time keeper. I wished him luck, and came down the stairs to meet The Family. She’d found a nice bench on the terrace of the first floor, and was busy watching people in the market below.

Christmas eve in Aberdeen bazaar

It wasn’t till Christmas eve that we had the time to actually walk around Port Blair. The previous days had passed in a flurry of travel from wetlands to forests and back again. Now that we had a little time in the evening, we asked an auto driver about the big bazaar in town. He assured us that we wanted to see the beautiful Aberdeen Bazaar, and dropped us there.

The shops started from a circle with a large statue of Gandhi. The first thing we noticed was that even now many shops were selling Christmas trees and decorations. Flower vendors in Aberdeen Bazaar, Port BlairThe market was buzzing, and only about half the people there were tourists. You don’t get a real feel of a town until you walk about a market. Now for the first time we noticed what a melting pot Port Blair is. We heard snatches of conversation in languages from across India, and saw faces which came from everywhere in the country: the north-east, east, heartland, north, and south. Clock tower in Aberdeen Bazaar, Port BlairI heard a snatch of Dogri, but when I looked around I couldn’t see who could have spoken it.

We passed a junction where three lanes met up with the road. Near one of them was a large stall selling flowers. This looked permanent enough to be an everyday affair. The chains of marigolds were probably hanging in many of the nearby shops. We walked up to a bizarre clock tower in the middle of the bazaar (photo here). I’d noticed this in passing before. The eye-watering blue lights were probably Christmas decorations.

We had to turn left or right, and I couldn’t remember which way we had gone the previous evening. Clerks busy at a shop about to shutWe saw an interesting looking Gurudwara to the right and turned in that direction. The next day we found that this was a mistake; if we’d turned left we would have reached the Christmas market. Near the Gurudwara we found a very interesting looking establishment; probably a wholesale grain shop (photo here). Most of the shutters were down but a row of clerks sat at their ledgers under the eagle eyes of past owners, whose portraits were on the wall. A few ominous drops of rain began to come down on us. We looked for an auto and just managed to get in before the skies opened up and sheets of water poured down.

We’d found a nice restaurant before we came to the bazaar. The rain hadn’t let up by the time we reached the place, but a doorman came with umbrellas to escort us inside. Our Christmas dinner turned out good: with fresh sea food done well, and a large slice of chocolate cake to follow.